Alex Tabarrok quotes Randall Morck and Bernard Yeung on difficulties with instrumental variables. This reminded me of some related things I’ve written.
In the official story the causal question comes first and then the clever researcher comes up with an IV. I suspect that often it’s the other way around: you find a natural experiment and look at the consequences that flow from it. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. See section 4 of this article.
More generally, I think economists and political scientists are currently a bit overinvested in identification strategies. I agree with Heckman’s point (as I understand it) that ultimately we should be building models that work for us rather than always thinking we can get causal inference on the cheap, as it were, by some trick or another. (This is a point I briefly discuss in a couple places here and also in my recent paper for the causality volume that Don Green etc are involved with.)
I recently had this discussion with someone else regarding regression discontinuity (the current flavor of the month; IV is soooo 90’s), but I think the point holds more generally, that experiments and natural experiments are great when you have them, and they’re great to aspire to and to focus one’s thinking, but in practice these inferences are sometimes a bit of a stretch, and sometimes the appeal of an apparently clean identification strategy masks some serious difficulty mapping the identified parameter to underlying quantities of interest.
P.S. How I think about instrumental variables.